Hard to believe, but 25 years ago Porsche was in serious trouble. The cash was flooding through the gates of the Stuttgart carmaker and it was largely headed in the wrong direction. Despite being responsible for one of the most iconic cars in automotive history, Porsche was failing. It may be that the Boxster is credited with saving the company, but you could argue it was the internally codenamed 996 that ultimately saved the day. It certainly saved the Porsche 911.
It was time to “break with old habits,” says August Achleitner, who served as head of design and development of the 996. “Porsche needed a car in a lower price segment, to help generate a higher volume of sales.”
This is what led to the idea of the Boxster and the 996 sharing parts, and ultimately what rescued Porsche for future generations.
Fans were amazed when they first laid eyes on this new version of the 911 at the Frankfurt motor show in 1997. It was a car that broke with multiple conventions. With the exception of the heavily modified iconic 911 design and the rear-engined drive concept, everything was new. It used water cooling instead of air cooling, and the ground-breaking parts-sharing concept with the 986-generation Boxster meant that up to the B-pillars, the interiors of the 996 and the Boxster were identical.
What remained unchanged was the boxer principle of the six-cylinder engine. What was new was the willingness of the engineers and designers to turn pretty much everything else upside down.
The 996 appeared under the direction of the Chief Designer in the 1990s, Harm Lagaay. He still recalls how surprised he was by what was, at the time, a unique strategy of building a mid-engine roadster and a rear-engine coupé identically from the front to the B-pillar. The Chief Designer was, of course, aware of the risk of mixing up the 996, 911 and 986 Boxster models, but other concerns were more pressing: “The pressure and the imperative of saving the company was the top priority.”
The aim was to sell a total of at least 30,000 units of both vehicles to help turn the company’s fortunes around. This was also the reason why the Boxster was launched a year before the 996, which was introduced in 1997.
The plan to sell 30,000 examples of the 996-generation 911 annually clearly worked as total sales actually hovered between 50,000 and 60,000.
Porsche didn’t quite get it all its own way though. Internally, there was never any criticism of the concept or the design, but it only took a few months for those “fried egg” headlight units to fall into disfavour. This came as a surprise to the designers as they had been roundly praised in the Boxster not long before. The headlights may have been technically brilliant, inexpensive, and easily installed on the production line….but it wasn’t quite what a 911 should look like, even if the new design worked for the Boxster.
Luckily, it clearly didn’t matter to enough people as the Coupe was soon joined by the Cabriolet version in 1998. Some six months later, Porsche introduced an all-wheel-drive 911 Carrera 4 in Coupé and Cabriolet versions, followed by the 420bhp, four-wheel-drive 911 Turbo in January 2000.
The introduction of the 911 GT3
While the Turbo and Carrera 4 models were pre-planned, the 911 GT3 launched in May 1999 came about almost by chance.
After a change in motorsport regulations, Porsche built a 360bhp offshoot of the 911 as a road-legal homologation vehicle and a successor to the 911 Carrera RS. The 911 GT3 marked the beginning of the establishment of an independent brand and a clear difference between an “everyday” 911 and a motorsport-inspired road car. This was followed in January 2001 by the 911 GT2 based on the 911 Turbo with a 3.6-litre boxer engine and 460bhp, as well as the first model to feature ceramic brakes as standard.
The 996 was reworked in 2002 with a larger 3.6-litre engine model year that saw the power boosted to 320bhp. That year also saw the 911 Targa and the 911 Carrera 4S Coupé with the wider bodywork of the 911 Turbo join the family. The open-topped 4S version followed in 2003, followed by a cabriolet version of the Turbo in 2004. From 2005, the Turbo S first appeared as a Coupé and Cabriolet with 450bhp.
Never before had there been so many variants of the 911 as in the 996 generation and considering Porsche would go on to sell roughly 175,000 examples it’s no exaggeration to say that combining the 996 and Boxster design served to lift the company’s fortunes.
Despite the marmite appeal of the headlights, and some early teething problems with a few of the parts, it’s thanks to the 996 that Porsche is still producing some of the greatest cars in the world.
With that in mind, we’d like to offer the Porsche 996 a great big thank you and a very happy 25th birthday.
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